Monday, 16 May 2011

Bite 111: J.M.W. Turner - Self-Portrait, 1799

Self-Portrait, 1799, oil on canvas, 74 x 58 cm, Tate Britain
At 24 Turner has just been made an Associate at the Royal Academy. He paints himself, almost life-size, confident and dapper, standing tall - yet with perhaps a hint of self-doubt. He gazes, front on, directly at the viewer, head protruding from a tight jacket, willing himself to be undaunted. 

He is tremendously present in a bold statement of who he believes he could be.

Contained and silent. Yet brimming just beneath the surface: a violent energy - like that in his later marine paintings; his billowing white scarf even prophetic of this. With thick, confident brushwork, he bristles with potential and possibility - and the lingering fear that he may in the end amount to nothing.

It is this paradox of ambition, in an expertly understated and transcendent work, which reaches across centuries to confront the viewer as if to say: "You may be young and a little scared, but dare to believe you have something unique to offer the world."

Turner certainly did. He went on to become the dominant figure in English Romanticism, and the key forerunner to Impressionism.